In forensic investigation, insect evidence helps date the time of death, as the various species that colonize corpses exhibit different stages of development according to time and temperature. Determining the post-mortem interval (PMI) rests on accurate species identification, including of immature forms. In Dec 2009 Int J Legal Med researchers from University of Wollongong, Australia, test DNA-based identification of Sarcophagidae flies, which lack distinguishing features as immature forms, and their adult identification requires “meticulous examination of subtle morphological differences, including regional hair presence and colour, body pigmentation and bristle length, placement and abundance”, and even then may need genitalic dissection for confirmation. As a result, sarcophagid flies are little used in forensic study, although being viviparous, they are “prospectively more reliable for PMI estimations compared with other initial dipteran colonisers” [the latter are mostly egg-laying species (e.g. callophorid blowflies), which hatch only if certain environmental conditions are met, adding uncertainty to PMI determinations].
The researchers successfully recovered COI barcodes, without evidence of pseudogenes, from 85 adult specimens representing 16 species, using a single primer pair with degenerate bases previously applied to forensic blowflies (Nelson et al 2007 Med Vet Entomol). In NJ analysis, 14 of 16 species showed single clusters distinct from other species; the remaining 2 species showed deep divergences which the authors surmise may indicate cryptic species, perhaps more likely given that “taxonomic descriptions of the Australian Sarcophagidae have not been updated since the 1950s”.
Meikeljohn and colleagues demonstrate efficacy of COI barcodes as species-level identifiers for Australian sarcophagids. The tight intra-specific clustering in these flies appears identical to that seen in diverse animal groups including vertebrates, for example, yet flies are presumably several orders of magnitude more abundant. (As an aside, although the authors report their sequences and associated specimen data are deposited in BOLD, their data are not visible in “Public Projects”–I hope the authors will amend this.) What then limits mitochondrial variation within species? Or in the language of population genetics, why are effective population sizes for animal species uniformly small, unrelated to census population sizes? Like the nature of dark matter, explanation(s) await.
Addendum 11 Feb 2010: Dr. Meikeljohn reports that the sequences and associated data are scheduled to appear in BOLD and NCBI GenBank as soon article appears in print edition.
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